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Charleston, SC - May 1874
Rhett sat in his leather chair sipping a glass of brandy not paying attention as the amber liquid rolled over his tongue and down his throat. He stared at the letter in front of him on his desk, having started to read it once but deciding a drink was in order first.
He had thought at first that Scarlett had been devious and had his step-son address the envelope. She would know that Rhett would open it thinking it was from Wade himself only to find it was from Scarlett. But when he opened it the handwriting very obviously belonged to a boy, and he had dropped the letter on his desktop as if burned upon that realization. That was over two hours ago. Rhett did not consider himself a coward, yellow or afraid of anything, but he found himself afraid of just what Wade would say to him.
Surely even Scarlett would not stoop so low as to tug on Rhett's heartstrings regarding his step-children and have them aid her in yet another ploy to get him to return to Atlanta. He had been there almost two months ago and had been a dutiful husband on that visit, holding true to his promise to keep up appearances for Scarlett's sake. He understood her not wanting to get a divorce, but he had grown tired of her thinking up excuses in an attempt to make him stay.
They lived as virtual strangers in that atrocity of a house Scarlett had created six years ago now for them to live in. The door joining their bedrooms had remained locked from his side of the doors for the first time ever. They did not share meals together and Rhett avoided her at all costs, which perhaps was not fair to her. He had asked Mammy in confidence to make up a guest bedroom for him to stay in not wanting to stay anywhere near Scarlett. He was not sure he would be able to resist if she were to come onto him physically.
He looked out of his office window. He had returned to Charleston hoping to find some peace as well as make peace. He and his mother had been getting along, but he sensed she did not approve of his separation from Scarlett. Not that he had told her specifically they were separated, but it did not take a genius to figure out that the current arrangement screamed out separation.
He drummed on his desktop and noted the difference in sound. Some fingers hit the bare top of his cherry wood desk and some fingers hit Wade's letter cushioning the sound. Scarlett had not waffled over the past six months from her declaration that she no longer loved Ashley. Of course, that was not overly surprising to Rhett, he had known all along she had not loved Ashley. So his problem was not with that.
No, his problem was how did Rhett know that Scarlett had not replaced him with Ashley? He honestly did not know how to tell, he was too close and too emotionally involved to the situation. He loved her, damn it. If he knew for sure that her claims of loving him were heartfelt and genuine he might reconsider his decision to end their marriage. But he doubted he would ever know.
He thought over the years, thirteen of them, and tried to decipher if there was ever any evidence that she loved him. There were times he thought she did, he had thought for years that she did and that if he had gotten her over her infatuation with Ashley that they would be happy. But that never came or at least not until it was too late. By the time it had come too much water had passed under the bridge that allowed him to give his love to her so freely.
Not wanting to think about Scarlett anymore and what could have been, he decided now was the time to read Wade's letter. He took one last sip on his brandy before setting the glass down and picking up the letter.
I hope you're not angry at me for writing and if you are please take it out on me not Mother. She doesn't even know I have your address but I begged Mammy to find it for me.
I know that something has happened between you and Mother to cause you to be gone so much. I've listened at her door enough when she's crying to know that it has something to do with Uncle Ashley. She acts all right when you're here, but when you leave she doesn't eat, she doesn't sleep, and she gets so angry all the time.
Yesterday, she spent the entire afternoon at the stable talking to God - I guess about you and Bonnie. I didn't get close enough to hear, but I know she misses you both a lot. I know there's no way Bonnie can come back, but is there any way you might be able to come back to Atlanta?
You are the only father I've ever known and even when I wasn't living with you you were always there and I've come to depend on you. Sometimes there are just things a boy needs to talk to a man about not his mother. And Uncle Ashley just isn't the same as you. You told me once that I was your son, but you're not acting like it right now. I've already lost one father I never thought I'd lose you, too.
Please think about coming home to us. I know you and Mother can make up. Ella and I both promise to do whatever we can to behave so that you and Mother can work things out.
Rhett set the letter down and reached for the bottle of whisky, pouring it right into the brandy snifter not caring if it was or was not the appropriate glass. He was glad there was no more to the letter, because he could not have taken much more of it.
Rhett had to give Wade credit; he knew just what to say and how to say it. If he was trying to make Rhett feel guilty and like a heel, he had done a damned fine job of it. He somehow suspected Wade's opening of the letter was true, that he was writing without Scarlett's knowledge. He would like to be able to believe she was behind this, that she had forced her son to write such a letter. Scarlett was a lot of things, but she wouldn't put her child through the emotional upheaval of writing such things. Not to mention her pitting Wade Hampton in the middle and having to choose sides between Rhett and Scarlett was out of character. Ten to one Rhett would win the contest and Scarlett knew this to be true as well as Rhett did for the very reason he stated in the letter, the boy wanted a father.
He could understand Wade's want for a father; Rhett had admittedly wanted one too. There had been many times throughout his life, both as a child and an adult, that he would have loved to have his father as a confidante. Lawyers were great for talking to and keeping things legal, even if it was slimly so, but sometimes it would have been nice to speak with the man responsible for making Rhett into what he was about things. He could not help but wonder just what might have happened with Scarlett if things between Rhett and his father had been different.
He stood from the desk and walked to the window. It was open, a light breeze was flowing through carrying with it a light early summer breeze and the fragrant smell of the Butler household's gardens. He paid no attention to these simple things he had grown to appreciate once more since returning to Charleston last winter. One thing with life with Scarlett had stopped him from doing was enjoying the little things, everything always had to be complicated and difficult. Not that it was always her doing they turned out that way he realized, he was to blame some of the time too. Of course his life had been complex and difficult before he had met Scarlett.
Why did Wade have to write him now? Rhett was just getting to the point where he doubted himself and his self-inflicted separation from his wife. From everything Rhett had heard from Atlanta Scarlett had been behaving herself. One of his contacts was Henry Hamilton so he was fairly assured his information was accurate. She and Ashley had not been alone together since Melanie's death. In fact, he had heard that other than to take Beau off his hands for a day or two, Scarlett rarely visited Ashley at his home.
What really frightened Rhett was that he would return and Scarlett would tell him it was a cruel joke. Even worse though would be after a month or two, or a year or two for that matter, that she discovered that she like Ashley never loved Rhett. He did not believe this was the case, but that did not mean Scarlett would not convince herself of it, just as she had convinced herself for years that Melanie was the only thing standing in the way of her happily ever after fairy tale ending with Ashley Wilkes.
He thought about talking to his mother, but he knew exactly what his mother would say. She would tell him to go to his wife, that it was his duty to try and make it work, that if Scarlett was willing to do some of the footwork it was up to Rhett to give her the chance to prove her sincerity. Unfortunately, Rhett was not sure how much more of Scarlett his heart could take. From the night of Ashley's birthday party three years ago he had been walking a tightrope where his heart was concerned. He was afraid he would topple over and there would be no safety net below to catch him when he fell.
There was another side to the coin as well. And that was simply he was not sure what he would do if he found out down the road that she really did love him and he had let her slip through his fingertips. It would be the ultimate justice perhaps, a final twist of the knife to his heart that he had worked so hard at hardening over the years. He had once upon a time thought he had done a fine job of hardening it, until he met Scarlett O'Hara that is.
And her children, Rhett could not help but think of them. Did they really think that his leaving had anything to do with them? He was surprised when he felt moisture in his eyes as this thought occurred to him. No, Wade and Ella were not Bonnie but he had never done anything to make them believe he loved them any less. Wade obviously remembered the conversation Rhett had had with him the day that Bonnie was born. Of course, he had left them when he left Scarlett. Rhett was the only father either child had ever known, and he hated it when they called him Uncle Rhett.
Wade had not indicated Scarlett was mistreating them, but he had indicated that she was not functioning as she should be. Did her children need to see her destroy herself and in the process destroy their fragile lives? Despite Wade's age, he was twelve now, he was still so fragile and afraid. Rhett had never been exactly sure what the boy was afraid of, but he realized as he actually began to cry for the first time in years without cause or reason to that he had made the boy's fears real by leaving them as he had.
And Ella was still a little girl at seven, one that Rhett could spoil as he had wanted to Scarlett and Bonnie. Perhaps that was the way Rhett could find out if Scarlett's declaration of love were sincere and life lasting, through her children. If she loved him as she claimed to surely she would not begrudge him showering them with the attention they deserved.
He could offer to adopt them and get rid of that stupid endearment of Uncle Rhett once and for all. Would she go for that, he wondered? If she really wanted him in her life one would think she would welcome that he was making his presence in the lives of her and her children permanent by taking them as his. Perhaps it was worth a try. It was either that or live miserably as he had been the months since he had left Atlanta.
He had enjoyed his time in Charleston, had enjoyed getting close to his mother again, but that was not what he ultimately craved. Strange how he never wanted to get married, never wanted to be tied down to one woman or one town but now that he was away from his wife he really had no desire to return to that way of life. He liked being married, he liked having a home to return to, and he liked having children in that home. His mother's house was nice, but it was always so quiet. Even when he had been a child it had been quiet, he had never been allowed to act as a child would.
The realization that his leaving was making Scarlett's children believe they had to act that way, as if even their footsteps being too loud across the floor could cause her to scold them made him come to his decision.
Two weeks later he found himself getting off a train in Atlanta. He had not informed anyone of his return, not even Scarlett. He knew when she saw the amount of luggage he brought with him on this trip that she would realize he was staying. It was all or nothing for Rhett. He could not have half of his belongings in Charleston and half in Atlanta or he would drive himself crazy and be tempted to flee every time he and Scarlett went for a round of verbal sparring.
He tried to convince himself that he had returned for the children, even if they were not his children by blood. He had been trying to convince himself of that for the past two weeks since receiving and reading Wade's letter. Somehow he knew that the Wade and Ella were his pride making up a reason to justify his returning to Scarlett.
Sooner than he would have liked he found himself pushing open and shutting again the waist high metal gate that separated their property line with the public sidewalk and stepped inside. He removed his hat, holding it at his side as he approached the front steps and door of his home. He would laugh if he walked through the front door and found Scarlett and Ashley in some type of compromising position. It would serve him right for pushing her away as he had.
He was struck by the almost death like quiet when he entered the house and he suddenly felt panicked that something horrible had happened and he had not been here. Where were the servants? Where was Mammy? Where were the children? Where was Scarlett?
He dropped his hat without thought at the foot of the stairs before quickly ascending them. He went first into Scarlett's suite, which was empty and caused the panicky feeling he had felt downstairs to grow by nightmarish proportions. He ascended the stairs to the third floor where the children rooms were and felt himself breath a sigh of relief when finally he heard noise.
He went in the direction of the noise; the children's play room, and opened the door. He was more than a little surprised at the scene before him. For a brief moment he believed he should have trusted his first instinct about Wade's letter and that it had been one of Scarlett's ploys. For here sat Scarlett, on the floor no less, in a day dress with Wade, Beau, and Ella sitting in front of her listening attentively as she read Grimm's Hansel and Gretel.
His doubts though were pushed to the back of his mind when he saw the look of genuine shock on Scarlett's face coupled with the look of fear in Wade Hampton's eyes that no twelve year old boy should have to feel. Ella was the first to get to him, her little arms went around his hips and she hugged him. She was dressed so prettily in a white gown with red trim along its hem and the end of its short sleeves. She had white ankle socks on and red patent leather shoes on that were the same color as the dress' trim. He saw the socks and shoes only as her skirts shifted when she walked.
"Don't you look pretty today, Ella."
"Thank you, Uncle Rhett. You look nice, too."
"Do I? Well, if anyone but you had said it I wouldn't have believed it," he winked. "But since it is you and I know you'd never fib about something like that I believe you. And I thank you," he winked again.
She giggled happily as Wade pushed up behind her, not so gently getting her out of his way. Rhett saw the confusion and apprehension in his eyes and on his face and closed his eyes briefly. He would not betray the boy's secret. "Are you too old to give me a hug, son? If so, I guess it's time for handshakes."
This seemed to please Wade and he extended his hand to Rhett, who took it and shook it. "You've been practicing. I hope you're not going around crushing the girls' hands around Atlanta."
"No, Uncle Rhett, of course not, I've practiced with Mother on how to take a lady's hand."
Rhett's eyes met Scarlett's briefly, but nonetheless intimately. "Well, son, if anyone can teach you how to treat a lady, it's your mother." He knew his choice of words would not be lost on Scarlett, but that it was exactly what Wade would need to hear.
Beau still sat on the floor, watching Rhett. This had to be a hard time for the boy. Ashley had not quite recovered from Melanie's death and if what Wade had said in his letter about Scarlett was true, Beau had been kind of shuffled around in the process. Rhett imagined Ashley's spinster sister was around to help with Beau, but knew Melanie would have preferred Scarlett see to the boy's upbringing than India Wilkes.
"How about you, Beau? Uncle Rhett's missed you too."
He smiled, displaying the fact he had lost a tooth or two. "Thank you, Uncle Rhett."
"Why, what's that space there in your mouth for?"
"I lost a tooth."
"You lost it?"
"And you weren't able to find it again?"
"No, Sir. A new one will grow in though."
Beau obviously knew he was teasing now. "Yes, Sir. I'll show you when it comes in."
"You do that," Rhett winked.
Scarlett had remained silent through all of this, though she was standing now and the book she was reading from was now on the floor at her feet.
"Mrs. Butler," he said giving her a hesitant, but sincere smile.
"Rhett," she said simply.
"Where is everyone? I come home to an empty house and silence. I was worried something had happened."
Scarlett opened her mouth to speak, but closed it. Rhett could almost hear her willing herself to hold her tongue. "I gave the servants the day off."
Rhett raised a brow curiously, he found Wade with his eyes and once again searched them for any clue, any hint that the boy had been in cahoots with Scarlett. "Why did you do that?"
And she blushed. She actually blushed at his question, which piqued Rhett's curiosity even more.
"Let's just say it was a well deserved day off and leave it at that."
"Should I leave you to your story telling?"
"No, actually, it's fine. I was about to take them down to see about something to eat."
"Well, why don't we take them somewhere then," he suggested. Now that he had had a few minutes while they were standing together in the same room Rhett could see that she was worn looking and tired. She had dark patches under her eyes and her cheeks did not have the hint of color in them that was normally there. Her hair was not as coiffed as it normally would be and while she was dressed nicely, the dress she wore was so plain. It certainly was not worn to draw attention to her. It was almost like she was trying to hide, to shrink into herself. Had he done that to her? He supposed it was not just him, but a combination of the events of her life since the War.
"Are you sure you'd like that?"
"Of course I would. I've missed my family. Why not show them off?"
Scarlett strode out of the room without saying another word. Rhett was not sure if she was upset or overwhelmed. He told the three children to keep themselves busy in the room for a while so he could talk to Scarlett.
He followed her downstairs and into her room, where she was laying face down on her bed. "I could take the children myself if you'd prefer it, but I think it would be good for you to get out, Scarlett."
"Why do you care," she said turning her head slightly so that her words were comprehendible.
"It's my first day back in Atlanta and I come home to find my wife has given every servant in the house the day off and she has three children to feed. I thought that I would spare you the grief of cooking for three children. And," he paused slightly. "I'd like to take my family to dinner. Is there a crime in that?"
"Is this for appearances sake, Rhett? I'm really not in the mood for making appearances this evening. I'm not sure I'd paint the picture you're trying to make of the beautiful family."
"No, it's not for appearances sake. I'll go there myself and bring the food back here if you'd prefer it. Or you could bring the children to Ashley's and I could take you to dinner alone."
She lifted her head from the pillow. So many emotions were displayed on her face and in her eyes at that moment. Surprise was there, along with curiosity and disbelief. There too was a glimmer of hope that she perhaps thought Rhett could not or would not choose to see. "You want to take me to dinner without the children?"
A knock at their front door interrupted their conversation. "Ah, that would be my luggage. Why don't you change while I supervise them bringing it in? You decide in the meantime if you want it to be with or without children, I assure you I don't mind either way, Scarlett."
She sat up on the bed, staring after him as his broad shouldered figure left her room. While there was nothing necessarily wrong with the dress she wore, it was very simple and not at all becoming on her. She had no idea that Rhett was to be returning to Atlanta any time soon let alone today or perhaps she would have dressed a little differently. It was just like him though, to come when she least expected it when she thought she looked perhaps the worst he had seen her since the miscarriage and give her reason to believe he might be here to actually try.
She had bathed that morning, so she did not need a bath. So all that she needed to do was brush her hair and put on a different dress. It did not take her overly long to accomplish both of these tasks.
Not quite thirty minutes later she opened the door that connected their suites having heard him in there. Yet another reason for her to believe he might actually be there to try. But when she saw the amount of luggage there was sitting in the room, she knew then without a doubt that Rhett had come home. Perhaps Charleston had not been all he had remembered it to be or perhaps he had just had a change of heart and wanted to be with Scarlett. She really did not care just then.
After her eyes had finished their quick assessment of the state of his room she smoothed down her skirt nervously and cleared her throat lightly. "Will this do?"
Rhett made no attempt to hide the appreciative look he gave her. Her face still looked worn and tired, but that would obviously take some time to fix. He noticed it only because of his feelings of guilt for being a large reason for her looking that way. But her gown, a deep gold with green accents that was bordering on being brazenly low cut was stunning on her. He could not help but whistle once, low and lewdly as she turned around modeling the entire gown. Even with the bustle in place she looked amazing, and Rhett knew that she knew it as well as he did.
Scarlett met his eyes when she had finished modeling the gown for him. She smiled genuinely, the fact was obvious because it was visible in her eyes. "I'll take that as a yes."
"Now I feel severely underdressed, something I'm not sure I've ever felt before in my life."
"Oh, Rhett, how you do go on. I've never seen you look anything other than handsome."
"So did you decide we were going with or without the children?"
"Well, I did sort of promise Ashley I'd keep Beau for the night. India has gone to the County. They're trying to rebuild Twelve Oaks, you know."
"Ah yes, I remember hearing about that. And India is in control of it?"
"Well, she'll be the one living there, so yes."
"Well," he said unbelieving he was actually about to say these words aloud. "Why not invite Ashley to join us then?"
"Rhett, he wouldn't. I mean, it's only been six months since Melanie died."
"Ah yes, propriety and society and their rules. All right, we'll take the children with us then. I've missed them, too, even Beau, so it's fine with me. I wouldn't have offered if I hadn't meant it."
"Too," she asked coquettishly.
"Yes, too, Scarlett." He cleared his throat lightly. "Now why isn't it I haven't seen you in that dress before?"
"I actually had it made right before Bonnie died, Rhett," she said and cut herself off. "I admittedly don't know that it's appropriate. It's not even been a year."
"Well, Scarlett, I think you've worn your share of black for a lifetime and as much as I loved and miss Bonnie, I don't think by wearing black for the rest of your life you'll do her memory any great service. She's not here to notice, and if she were looking down from heaven, I think she might find it incredibly dull and depressing to see her mother dressed in gray and black all the time."
"Do you mean that, Rhett? I always feel as if everyone's talking about me because of it."
"Don't let them worry you, Scarlett. I won't tell you what I foolishly told you years ago, not to worry about your reputation. But in your heart, and in my heart, we both know what Bonnie would and would not have wanted us to do. I'm sure Bonnie can see your whole life lain out before her and she'd want you to be as vivacious as you were the first day I met you. It was because of that day she ever came to be."
"I suppose you're right. Let me go get the children dressed and we can go."
"Well, I imagine they're old enough to get themselves dressed. So why don't you go tell them to change for dinner and then maybe you can come down here and help get me dressed."
Scarlett blushed slightly and turned from his room without saying another word, which prompted a hearty laugh from Rhett as she opened the door leading from her room to the hallway. She did not know what to make of this man who claimed to be her husband. He was flirting with her, complimenting her, admitting he had made mistakes, and talking with her as if he cared. She was not used to this Rhett. They had never had this in their marriage. Always their marriage had been filled with sarcasm, hurtful words, anger, deceit, and even dishonesty when it came right down to it.
Of course the dishonesty had been her fault. Now that she had time on her hands to think over the past she realized Rhett had loved her all along. She realized, too, even more clearly than the night Melanie died that she had loved Rhett all along. They had always been, as he so pointedly stated the night he left, at cross-purposes. So he was here evidently to give their marriage a second chance. While this made her feel good and relieved, because she knew if they both tried it could work. She realized, too, as she got to the head of the stairs leading from the second to the third floor that it could also end very disastrously.
Neither Rhett nor Scarlett was used to expressing their true feelings nor were they used to being vulnerable and raw to someone else. That was always when the sarcasm and hurtful words had been exchanged between them, Scarlett realized. It was when they were at their most vulnerable and perhaps at the cusp of revealing their true feelings to one another.
She told the children to get dressed for dinner and meet them in the parlor when they were finished and continued with her thoughts on the way back to Rhett's room. Was that why Rhett had left her so suddenly after their night of lovemaking after Ashley's birthday party? She had woken the following morning realizing that she should feel cheap and wanton for the things not only that they had done to one another but the things they had said to one another as well. And Scarlett had given as well as she had taken from Rhett, both the things and the words. She had known all along that Rhett had been holding back, but she never imagined that his letting go in their marriage bed would be when he was most vulnerable.
To think what might have been different between them if she had just flat out, boldly told him the next morning how much she had enjoyed it. She did not care that he had treated her very unlike a gentleman treated his lady wife, that he had treated her as a man treated a whore or a common woman. He had brought her to places and encouraged her to bring him to places neither had ever experienced before. Of course they had not because neither had done the act of lovemaking before with love involved. How stupid of her not to realize this.
She knocked lightly on Rhett's door and entered when he bid her to do so. She could not hide the look of disappointment on her face when she saw that he had already changed. "You didn't need my help after all, it seems," she said trying to keep her voice light. Tonight was no time to get into an argument over something petty.
He winked as he looked at her through the reflection in his mirror. "Maybe I just wanted to make sure we actually got the children fed. If it was just Ella I don't know that I'd be too worried, but with two growing boys on our hands, I'd be afraid if we dawdled at all they'd break down our door demanding their food that minute."
She shook her head slightly as she laughed. "I suppose you're right." She glanced around his room once more and could not help but ask him about his luggage. "Are you staying in Atlanta long this time?"
"I'm thinking about it, yes."
All right, so he was not going to jump in with both feet and declare he was staying for good. The fact that he was even thinking about it was definitely an improvement. "I'm glad," she said her eyes downcast so that she would not see if he was laughing at her.
He stepped towards her then, having finished placing his stickpin. He cupped her chin with his hand and tilted her head upward, his dark eyes piercing into hers. Ah, there was some emotion in them, some life, and some spunk. He kissed her lightly, he had not really planned on kissing her tonight, or anytime soon, but he had never kissed her either under the pretense of her loving him and he was curious to know if it might be different.
And good lord, but it was. She took the light kiss he bestowed upon her with friendly affection and coiled her arms around his neck drawing him closer, deeper into the kiss that he had started. She parted her lips and initiated the meeting of their tongues, which danced intimately for what to Rhett seemed like an eternity. He could feel the pounding of her heart through her dress against his chest, and he was quite sure she could feel his too.
He had no idea how long that kiss lasted, but it was the longest kiss he had ever experienced without it leading to something beyond kissing. They had certainly never kissed like this before now. He drew away, both sets of eyes revealing the smoldering hunger that they both knew could not be acted on at that moment. And both gave way to soft groans of disappointment when they heard footsteps descend the stairs reminding them once again that they had charges they had to see to the feeding, bathing and bedtime of.
"The sooner they eat, the sooner they go to bed, right," he asked huskily ashamed at how easily she had aroused him and made him forget that he was here for the children. He was here to give their marriage another chance, yes, but he had intended on going slow and seeing how she reacted to his wanting to be a father to her step-children. That seemed rather trite and unimportant right now. It could have just been stifled desire that had brought on such a kiss, six months actually longer since the physical aspect of their marriage had ceased to exist before he had left. Rhett was not altogether sure that was the case, though. Scarlett as far as Rhett knew had never allowed herself to succumb to desire.
"Not necessarily, but it's worth a try."
"No, no, there's no need to rush them. I haven't seen them either, Scarlett, and they need to get used to my being around again. So it's probably best we don't hole ourselves in our bedrooms right away."
"You're being a little presumptuous, aren't you?"
"Not really, I didn't necessarily say what we would be doing in our bedrooms or whether or not we'd even be doing it together," he smirked.
"And what's this about you haven't seen the children? You saw them when you've come here more than you saw me."
"Well, I had my reasons for that, Scarlett. I admittedly didn't think on them when I left that evening. Wade and Ella have lost one father already."
"I suppose you're right," she said her eyes softening slightly as he spoke. "You're really intending on staying?"
"I'm going to try, Scarlett. I'm going to try, but you have to be willing to meet me halfway. Or there's no sense in my even being here."
"Of course I'm willing to meet you halfway, Rhett. I'll do anything."
"Well, you won't have to do anything, my pet, I won't make you jump through hoops or anything. But the biggest thing has to be no more lies and no more deception. I can't bury my feelings and my heart anymore, Scarlett, or I won't have a heart left to give. Even to you."
"I know, Rhett, I do. And I think I've finally found mine, the real one. I realize we can't start over, but I'd like to at least try and start over? I mean, I don't want to start over and forget everything that's happened between us, because I think what has happened is important."
"Do you now?"
"I do. Oh Rhett, these past months have been miserable. The town was talking about me, about you, and about our marriage and whether or not it was over. They were waiting, counting the days after you'd leave from your visits and I'd rush to Ashley. I never did, of course. I avoided his house if India wasn't there as much as I despise her, and saw him at the mill only with other people present and then only to help him with the books."
"I know," he admitted as he walked to his bedroom door. "Let's go eat with the children, Scarlett. We have the rest of the evening to discuss these things. They're liable to tear the parlor apart if we don't get down there pretty quickly."
She laughed lightly and adjusted the pearl necklace she wore. "I forgot they were down there already. Let's go. I think they'll be happy you came home, my cooking is not exactly what they're used to."
Rhett pushed open the door to Wade's room. He had said good night to Ella before coming up to the third floor and saying good night to Beau. He had purposely saved Wade for last. Scarlett was down in the kitchen seeing to the cleanup of the cups of hot chocolate the five of them had drunk while Scarlett read a bedtime story. Rhett had unpacked some of his things before joining them, unable to quite believe that he was witnessing Scarlett performing such a motherly task as reading to her children before bed.
"Are you still awake, son?"
"Yes," Wade turned his head on his pillow, his eyes wide as he looked at Rhett.
"Good," Rhett said as he moved to sit on the edge of Wade's bed. "I guess you know I got your letter."
"Yes, Sir. Are you mad," he asked softly. "Please don't take it out on Mother if you are."
Rhett smoothed down Wade's dark hair with his hand. "Nonsense. I'm not mad at all, and I'd never take it out on you or your mother even if I had been." Rhett gave the boy a smile before he continued. "I'm going to try, Wade, to stay and make things with your mother work. You're old enough now, obviously, that you understand that she and I have had our share of difficulties."
"And they involved Uncle Ashley, right?"
"In part, yes. But not entirely, he was really just the foundation that had been set years ago on top of which our newer problems were built. Please don't blame your Uncle Ashley for our problems, Wade. Your mother and I both realize we're to blame, no one else. I just don't want you to think that because I'm here it's going to be forever."
"But you're going to try, right?"
"Yes, I'm going to try. I've missed you and Ella, and I admit I didn't give the two of you much thought when I left. Not that I haven't thought of you since I've been gone, I have and don't you ever think otherwise. But I was angry and hurt and my actions weren't meant to hurt the two of you."
Wade nodded his head against his pillow. "Yes, I think I understand. Mother forgot about us a lot."
"Well, that was a little different, Wade. Your mother had a lot to contend with, I don't think she ever purposely forgot about you." Rhett brought the blanket around Wade's chest and tucked him in as he stood. "Your mother never forgot about you, she was just overwhelmed is all." He smoothed down Wade's hair again and kissed his forehead lightly. "I won't tell your mother about the letter, Wade. If you want to tell her, that's up to you, but it's probably best she thinks I came back for my own reasons than because of you."
"I don't understand, Sir."
"Well, she might get upset if she thinks that I came back for you not for her, that you got me to take a chance on our marriage instead of her. Does that make sense?"
"I think so," he said, though his voice betrayed his uncertainty.
"Let's just keep it a secret between us then, your letter that is, all right? That way she won't get mad at either of us. We want to try and get your mother all better, right?"
"Good, we both want the same thing and I'm going to count on you to help me, son. You said in your letter you and Ella promised to behave, but I've never had a problem with the way either of you behaved so long as I've lived with you. So please don't think you have to change the way you act."
Wade nodded enthusiastically to that. "All right. You'll tell us though if we do something wrong?"
Rhett turned off Wade's bedside lamp, hiding the pained look that crossed Rhett's face at the boy's question. "I don't see that being a problem, Wade, but I promise you I will if it happens. You sleep well now I imagine Mammy and the others will be back tomorrow."
"Yes, Sir. Mother was kind of mean this morning, that's why she gave them the day off."
"I assumed it was something like that. Your mother always did have a temper; I'm glad she's learning to recognize she can't treat servants poorly and get away with it. They'll find another mistress to work for who will treat them fairly."
Rhett laughed lightly, realizing Wade probably had no idea what Rhett was talking about. "Good night then, son."
"Good night, Uncle Rhett."
Rhett closed the door behind him as he exited Wade's room and descended the stairs to the second floor. He removed his stickpin and then loosened and removed his cravat before making his way to his room. He hoped he had eased Wade's mind. The boy really had courage when it came down to it, especially if he really didn't know how Rhett was going to react to getting that letter.
He removed his suit coat and trousers, hanging them over his valet before he changed into a black silk robe he had come by when one of his ships docked in Charleston from the Orient. It was a stunning garment, and Rhett could not help but buy a deep ruby red one similar to it for Scarlett.
He knocked lightly on the door joining his bedroom suite to Scarlett's and entered. He had not boxed the silk robe, not sure if he was ever going to give it to her. He watched her briefly as she brushed out her hair for the night. "I bought this for you at Christmastime actually. I figured since it's bedtime you might want to try it out."
Scarlett turned to look at him, her eyebrows rising as she regarded him. "Matching robes, Rhett?"
"Well, not exactly, no. Yours is red and mine is not." He chuckled lightly.
She stood and walked the short distance from her vanity to where he stood and ran her hand over the red robe draped over his forearm. "It feels nice," she whispered.
"I thought so," Rhett said simply. He watched with interest as she seemed almost nervous just then. "I've admittedly wondered what it would feel like on you."
"Have you," Scarlett asked softly. She moved her hand from the robe draped over his arm to the robe he wore on his body. She touched him almost hesitantly but nonetheless meant it as a caress, passing over his broad and hardened chest. She had never really paid much attention to his form before, how hard he had to have worked at one time to get his body to look like it did. And strangely, despite knowing him for over a dozen years she had no idea just what he had done to get that way. Her hand encircled as much of his upper arm as she could and squeezed gently. "Hopefully it will feel as good on me as it does on you."
"I'm sure it will. You have more softness and curves to offer than I do."
"But a man isn't supposed to be soft and curvy."
"No," she laughed lightly. "In fact, I'd say most women would look at you and say that a man should look just like you; tanned, rugged, hard where he should be and soft where he should be, too."
"You're too kind," he said softly. "I should tell you, though, that you're making soft parts of me hard by touching me like that, Scarlett."
She blushed slightly, tempted to look down to his waist but refrained. "Is that so bad?"
"No, I wouldn't say it's bad at all."
"Can I try that robe on now, Rhett," she asked letting her hand travel lightly lower along his arm to the robe once again.
"Scarlett, what are you trying to do?"
"What do you mean, Rhett? I just want to try on the robe. My husband comes home, apparently for good, and he's brought me a luxurious gift."
He cleared his throat lightly. "Well, if I didn't know better I'd think you wanted me to stay in your room with you."
"Maybe I do. Shouldn't you stay here?"
"Well, if you remember correctly you sort of barred me from coming in here."
"That was a long time ago and I was a foolish girl then. And I honestly wasn't sure how to unsay it." She glanced up at him coquettishly. "Do you remember the night of Ashley's birthday party?"
Rhett winced slightly. "Vaguely, yes, I was a bit inebriated but I remember I wasn't overly kind to you when you returned home that evening."
"Oh, but Rhett," she said softly as she shed the wrapper she had been wearing as she backed the short distance from Rhett to her vanity. She draped it over her vanity chair and then turned to face Rhett again. She was being uncharacteristically bold, but she was not sure he would initiate lovemaking between them so soon after his return. She hoped he would not mind, Scarlett suspected somehow that the best way to let him know she had really changed was in their bed. He had heard her say things for years, and she had heard tell that actions spoke louder than words.
The deep yellow nightgown she wore matched the gown she had worn to dinner that evening and would offer a nice contrast to the red of the robe he had brought for her. The nightgown while floor length had slits along the sides of both legs up to her hips offering him plenty of leg to view as she walked toward him.
She took the robe from him and put it on, not bothering to belt it closed. Her hands went to his forearms and clutched them, aiding her in bringing herself up to his height to kiss him. "I enjoyed it," she whispered as she broke the kiss.
Rhett pulled back from her, his surprise and pleasure both reflected clearly in his eyes. "You enjoyed it?"
"God strike me down in my place for admitting to it, Rhett, but yes. I often wonder how different things might have been if I'd just spoken up that next morning before you left with Bonnie and told you I wasn't mad at you."
"I wager things would be different between us, yes," he admitted. He lifted his hand and pushed aside some of her hair. "You know why I left that day, don't you?"
"Well, I've tried to figure it out, but I never could really."
"I was too vulnerable, you still thought you loved Ashley and by making love to you like that I was too raw, my emotions were right there for you to see and I was afraid you'd use them against me."
She reached for the belt of his robe and untied it, placing her hands inside the robe and under his undershirt. "Are you still afraid," she asked as her hands pushed his undershirt up so she could touch his broad chest and the light sprinkling of hair there.
Rhett's eyes fell closed briefly and he swallowed hard before he opened his eyes again. "Yes," he admitted.
"Well, I'm scared too," Scarlett admitted. "But we can either let it control us and lose out on possibly the best thing in our lives, one another, or we can push it aside and not let it get the best of us."
"How did you get to be so smart, Mrs. Butler?"
"I am married to this very shrewd businessman you see and he's taught me a lot."
"Oh really," he said as he shed his robe and then his undershirt which she was doing all she could to remove it with the robe still on. "I think he'd like to teach you some more and be taught some, too."
Scarlett knew that Rhett had not come back to Atlanta with this in mind, but she knew that she had to start somewhere with showing him she was sincere. Just how long did one wait to start showing their husband they loved him? She was not sure what propriety might dictate on this matter and tonight she did not care. She wanted Rhett to take her to that place again and this time they would both be sober and wanting to attain the same heightened pleasure. Hopefully, she thought with a twinge of uncertainty running through her this would not be a disappointment.
Both seemed somewhat inhibited just now and Scarlett took this as a good thing, too much confidence on either of their parts could be disastrous.
Scarlett not sure just what she should do sat on the bed, looking up at him knowing she made a tempting sight with her right leg crossed over the left exposed to her hip. "So, Mr. Butler," she said eyeing him in what she hoped was a suggestive manner. "Are you going to stand there all night?" Not that she needed to ask the question, he had already started walking towards her.
Rhett pushed the silk robe from Scarlett's shoulders, his hands spanning her shoulder from neck to arm. "I don't know about all night, but there are some creative things I could come up with involving standing if that's what you wanted, my sweet."
"Say that again," she said forcing her voice to work despite the rush of sensations flowing through her body just then at his touch and the suggestiveness behind his words. She should have been insulted and perhaps that was what he was doing, testing her, but she had liked that night long ago now too much to deny him anything he deemed creative.
Rhett frowned slightly. "That there are creative things I can come up with involving us standing up?"
"No, the last words, what you called me."
His brow furrowed even more now. "Why?"
"I'm used to ‘my pet' or ‘my dear'," she explained. "My sweet is different."
His hand dropped to the waist of the robe, a light chuckle following the movement when he realized belatedly it was already undone. He knew she had not fastened it, but it was habit for him to have to undress Scarlett from her being trussed up like a Christmas goose. He admittedly liked this new and bolder Scarlett. "I've come to realize, Scarlett, that different can be very good. Wouldn't you agree," he asked as his mouth fell to the tops of her breasts.
"Yes," Scarlett said quietly.
Rhett heard her inhale deeply as his tongue darted over her breasts and smiled, letting out a deep breath of his own. He felt her hands move to his shoulders and groaned softly, unaccustomed to her touching him of her own accord. His hands dropped to her hips as he scooted her along the bed so that he could join her on it.
"Rhett," Scarlett said softly.
"Yes, Scarlett," Rhett asked anticipating somehow that she was going to have a change of heart and bid him to stop. The night of Ashley's birthday party he had been drunk, but even then he would not have proceeded to make love to her had she bid him to cease. That night she had not, but he also had not given her a whole lot of choice. Tonight they were on more even, and sober, ground.
"Please, you're going too slowly."
"Too slow," he said a brow rose in question as he regarded her, his head just above her breasts. Her green eyes were a deep green unlike any color he had ever seen them before now. They looked like emeralds, perfect in their color and the desire they betrayed was clear.
She nodded her head simply, her hands moved from his shoulders to his head drawing his mouth to her breasts, the part still covered by her negligee that he had as of yet not paid attention to.
Rhett followed her prompt willingly. His mouth gathered a peak into his mouth, hardened but not quite what it could be he knew from experience, through the negligee and stimulated it with his mouth, teeth, and tongue. He expected her to protest, to stop him when she realized he might ruin the gown but instead she whimpered softly. Her fingers spread in his hair as she offered more of her breasts by arching her back.
He felt one of her hands run through his hair and then drop to his bare back. He shivered slightly at the touch as her fingertips traced over his back and then imbedded into it as his tongue grazed her nipple teasingly.
His hands reached for and with the help of Scarlett moving beneath him and his leg, pushed the hem up, removing the negligee completely. He knelt above her his boxers the only article of clothing standing in the way of them both being completely naked. He could not help but look at her, taking advantage of the fact she was allowing him to look. How many times over the years had he wanted to look at her and she had refused him, claiming ladies did not do that? A corner of his mouth lifted into a partial smile as he realized she was thinking the same thing. He had maintained thirteen years ago she was no lady, but until now she had been unwilling to shed the disguise she clung to for so long in their bedroom.
His hands touched her everywhere he could reach, her abdomen, her breasts, her shoulders, arms, hands and fingers. Her skin was smooth and blemish free now, the years of having to work Tara on her own no longer apparent. He was sure the emotional scars were still there, but the physical signs were gone now. Her body responded like he believed it would all along, and the look on her face was one Rhett knew he would remember forever. She was enjoying herself, she was enjoying the fact he was touching her, loving her with his hands. He was not altogether sure he believed Scarlett had changed, but if this was any indication he was glad he had come back. Not that their marriage could be rebuilt on sex, but if she was willing to meet him halfway, and then some, in bed he believed she would out of bed as well.
He glanced at her hands, which were mirroring his. She was touching his chest with childlike wonder, which amused him somewhat. He was tempted to ask her what was so interesting, but he refrained not wanting her to think he was teasing her or insulting her somehow. Not now, there would be time for teasing later. His breath caught when her hands dropped from his chest to his waist and tugged on the waistband of his boxer shorts.
"Take them off, Rhett."
"Perhaps you'd like to remove them yourself."
She smiled and leaned up so that she could push them over his hips. She inhaled sharply at the sight of him fully aroused. "Did I do that?"
Rhett laughed lightly as he stood from the bed to remove his boxers the rest of the way. "Does that surprise you? It would be easy for you to do that to me whenever you'd like, Scarlett, merely by being attentive and responsive."
"I have every intention of being that way from now on, Rhett."
"I believe you, Scarlett," he whispered surprised by the truth behind his words. When was the last time he had believed anything Scarlett had said without question? He could not remember, but he liked that he could say those words so freely and mean them.
His boxers dropped on the floor at the side of the bed, Rhett knelt on the floor and drew her towards the edge of the bed once again.
"Rhett," Scarlett started to protest until Rhett put a stop to her protests when his hand moved between her legs followed by his mouth.
Rhett was gentle, but his attentions were nonetheless intense. There was an emotion with his actions that aside from that one night had always been carefully held at bay when he had made love to her. One thing he did believe was that Scarlett had been faithful to him, which meant it had been quite some time for her since she had been with a man. As much as he was ready to make love to her at that moment, he wanted her more than ready. He wanted to hear more of her directing him to go faster, pleading with him to bring her satisfaction, and yet he wanted her to feel cherished. He had always cherished her, but had until now been far too afraid to demonstrate that fact completely.
Her calls of his name changed from protests to questioning sounds as to whether or not she should actually enjoy what he was doing to her. Finally, though, the pleasure he was so adamant about giving her surrounded her, wrapping her and her doubts into its power so her sounds changed to untamed passion with little held back. If she thought these sounds would distract Rhett, as her pleas for him not to stop seemed to indicate, they had just the opposite effect on him. He worked harder, more diligently at bringing about her release.
He was not aware of her hands at his upper back near his shoulders until he felt her nails bite into his flesh, but even that did not stop him from continuing until she had ridden the waves of ecstasy that he had helped create for her. Several smaller ones followed her climactic peak and he aided her in riding each of those waiting until her sounds of pleasure had been reduced to soft whimpers and whispered words.
He chuckled lightly as he drew away, trailing a path of light but still sensuous kisses along her inner thighs. "I hope the children don't think I'm skinning you alive in here," he murmured, though he was not overly concerned. Kids and servants alike knew better than to disturb parents when they were in their room with the door closed and bolted. Rhett legally, as any husband did, had the right to do whatever he wanted to to Scarlett. And while there were times he thought a good whipping with a belt or a buggy whip would have done her a world of good, in the long run he never could have brought himself to harm her. He believed their children knew that as well. Wade was old enough he might suspect what the adults were doing was not violent.
Scarlett looked shocked for a minute. "Do you really think they heard me, Rhett?"
"No, I don't think they heard you. And even if they did, do you care? Wouldn't you like to teach your children instead of it being the duty you were raised as it to be that it can be like this? Passionate, loving, and very enjoyable to both parties."
She slid back on the bed without his having to prompt her and he moved on top of her. "Yes, I suppose so. Though had I been taught that I would have been severely disappointed with my first two husbands." She groaned softly, feeling how ready he was against her and willingly parted her legs for him. Her hands moved to his buttocks, trying to move him faster into consummating this new relationship for them. She felt so wanton, so dirty behaving this way, but she had to admit she liked it. With Rhett she liked it, it was Rhett that made it acceptable for her to behave this way.
"You wouldn't have married them if you'd been taught that, Scarlett. Trust me, you wouldn't have," he whispered hoarsely honestly hating to think of her with any other man married to the other man or not. His mouth dropped to her breast to cease conversation of Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy in their bed. He took her inviting and bold gesture and entered her. His teeth bore briefly against her breast, grazing the delicate underside of her breast a little roughly as he sank into the velvet smoothness that was her core.
He gave as well as took from her, wordlessly demanding her response, her participation. He was not going to give her release without her helping to bring her to that point. The night she had spoken of had not been the tenderest night of lovemaking in his history, it had in fact bordered on rough with his wanting to control her at the root of his what he had until now considered to be rude and unacceptable behavior. Tonight, though he gave her another taste of that since she had admitted to liking it. He would never hurt her, beyond perhaps slight pain that was brought on to enhance her pleasure, and when Rhett looked at Scarlett during one of those pleasingly painful moments he knew that she trusted him not to hurt her.
Rhett felt her body tense around him, felt the swell of her breast grow fuller in his hand as she arched her back towards him, and heard as her lips parted and sounds of pleasure escaped her lips. It was to be the last of many peaks he had brought her to, at least for now, because he could not stop himself from finishing. A soft groan of contentment escaped his lips as he held her against him, both of them lying still on the bed.
"I love you, Rhett," he heard the soft words whispered against his ear.
His heart constricted, tightened and then suddenly those feelings of dread and heaviness were replaced with hope, rightness and lightness. How many times had he prayed to hear those three words to be whispered to him from Scarlett during the aftermath of their lovemaking? How many times had he hoped and prayed that he would bring her to the point across from that careful line she had drawn through her heart and in a moment of weakness, after he had given her fulfillment she would admit to loving him?
He was silent for too long, he knew he was, but he was not sure how to reply. And finally, he settled for the easiest answer. "I love you, too, Scarlett," he said lifting his head to kiss her. What frightened him most, was though it was the easiest answer to provide her, it was the honest answer. He had just admitted his feelings to her and in doing so if tomorrow she woke up and was once again the old Scarlett she would have those words he knew she had been waiting years to hear to use against him. That just did not matter to him as much as it used to he realized. So what if she knew he loved her? There were worse crimes in the world than loving one's wife. He had committed or thought of committing most of those crimes, so he was well acquainted with right and wrong of things. He just hoped he had not walked into the lion's den unprepared, but only time would tell.
He moved her so they were positioned properly on the bed, their heads at the pillows instead of the bed's edge. A light kiss made him realize that she was tired, exhausted and would quickly drift off to sleep. He drew the blankets around her and joined her in her efforts to sleep.
Atlanta, Georgia - July 1875
Scarlett was going over some papers in the study while Rhett was seeing that Wade and Ella were tucked away in their beds. The past year had passed by so quickly for Scarlett and so differently than she had imagined things being at this time when Rhett was gone that it was hard for her to believe that they had just celebrated their anniversary.
Things were not one hundred percent between them, they had their share of disagreements and outright rows from time to time, but both she and Rhett had come to expect that from one another. What a difference admitting their feelings to one another had made, knowing that they both loved one another made all the arguments and bad times seem worth it. Neither believed at the next bump in the road they were going to run away or call it quits, they were both in this marriage for better or for worse, until death did they part.
Scarlett had never really been mindful of that part of the wedding vows when she married Charles or Frank, and she had not mourned either of them in the way she should have. She mourned the fact she was a widow, had to wear black and abstain from dancing and other fun things more than she did either husband's passing. She knew, though, that if something were to happen to Rhett she would mourn him properly. In fact, she had gotten to the point since Bonnie's death and then Melanie's and then with Rhett leaving her that she was not sure what she would do without him there for her anymore. At least when he had left she knew that he was out there somewhere, enjoying life and that made their separation almost bearable. Knowing he was dead would have been unbearable for Scarlett, even if they were not together any longer.
But now that he had opened her heart, made her realize that she would never have to worry about where her next meal would come from or work like a field hand to feed herself and her loved ones, Scarlett realized how hurtful she had been to everyone, not just Rhett. It had not been intentional in the least, Scarlett had just been out for survival others be damned.
She had started by making amends with both of her children. She worked hard at planting memories of both of their fathers, letting Wade Hampton take pride in both Charles and Rhett and Ella in both Frank and Rhett. Both children called him father now, if anyone in Atlanta questioned this no one said a word to the Butler's.
Rhett had spoken of adopting them; Scarlett was not sure until recently if that was the right thing to do. By taking away their last names and giving them Rhett's last name she felt that it was in a way taking away a part of their fathers, too. But for their anniversary, Scarlett had given him what he had asked for; he was now legally their father.
It seemed the least she could do for him. She knew he loved children and with Bonnie gone, the unborn babe lost when Scarlett fell down the stairs and with her lack of getting in the family way the past year it seemed the only way he was going to come by them. She was admittedly disappointed that she had not gotten with child yet, it certainly was not from a lack of trying on their part. She would have liked to have a child born from the love that they were both so willing to admit and demonstrate to one another now.
She was brought out of her thoughts by the ringing of their exterior bell, indicating someone was paying them a visit. She was curious as to who it was and decided to answer the door herself. She could not stop the lump that crept to her throat from her heart at the realization that at this hour it was not someone just coming by to be social. Do not let something bad have happened to anyone, she pleaded to God followed by her crossing herself.
She opened the door to reveal a young man perhaps fifteen, certainly not a child and yet not quite an adult either. She recognized him, but from where she was not sure. He was dressed neatly but not expensively. Perhaps he was a friend of Wade Hampton's, though why he would be calling at this time of night Scarlett had no idea.
"May I help you?"
He removed the cap he wore, holding it against his chest. He was visibly nervous, his dark hair had a bit of a cowlick to it which made him look a little younger than Scarlett had guessed him to be.
"I was looking for Rhett, Ma'am."
Her eyes widened as recognition set in and she felt herself grow dizzy and realized before she could do anything about it that she was going to faint. She heard from somewhere faintly, the voice sounded so distant like it was coming from somewhere far away, a man calling her name out. Despite the distance and the faintness of the voice she could sense panic in the one word he exclaimed.
Rhett dashed down the stairs as quickly as he could, but he did not make it in time to catch a fainting Scarlett as she started to fall. Luckily, William had reacted quickly enough and caught her in his arms, preventing her from injuring herself.
"What are you doing here," Rhett asked sharply as he took Scarlett into his arms and carried her into the parlor. He would have preferred taking her directly up to their room, but with William here that was not an option.
William shifted his weight from one foot to the other and then back again nervously. "Mother is sick and I felt I should send for you even though she told me not to."
"She's what," Rhett shouted not realizing how loud his voice had been until he saw William cringe slightly. "I'm sorry, son. What do you mean your mother's sick?"
"I," he paused collecting himself with obvious effort. "One of the girls telegrammed me at school and told me it would be best if I came home as soon as I could. I got home this morning, and she's real bad off."
Rhett pondered this for a moment, when exactly was the last time he had seen Belle? He grew upset with himself when he could not come up with an answer. He had been so focused on Scarlett and the children, making a family and a real home once and for all that he had not spent much time at her saloon upon returning to Atlanta.
One of the servants brought in the smelling salts and Rhett hesitantly passed them under her nose. He wanted to bring her around, but was not sure how wise it was to do so with William still in their home. But he could not leave without knowing she had come to and was all right. Lord help him, but he had the feeling the past year and all the good they had done together was about to come crashing down around him.
She came to with a start, her eyes opening wide as she sought out Rhett. She touched his face, caressing it with the palm of her hand. "I had the strangest dream, Rhett."
"What's that, my pet," he queried softly.
"I dreamt I had seen you as a young man. That you showed up at my doorstep, but the strangest thing was you asked to see yourself," she said clearly puzzled.
Rhett placed his hand over hers and lowered it slightly so that he could kiss the palm of her hand. "Scarlett," he whispered hoarsely his eyes bearing into hers to keep quiet for just now.
"What is it, Rhett? Has something happened?"
"You fainted, Scarlett."
"I did no such thing, Rhett Butler; I haven't fainted in all of my life."
"You did and probably for good reason."
"What reason could possibly be good enough for me to faint?"
"You weren't dreaming, Scarlett. A young man did come to our door looking for me. His name is William. He's here in the room with us."
Scarlett struggled to sit up, taking Rhett's assistance which he offered without hesitation. "But it was you in my dream, Rhett."
"Well, he does look an awful lot like me, Scarlett," he said gesturing with his head to William who stood by the parlor doors like an unwelcome guest.
Scarlett looked from Rhett to William and back again. "No," she shouted. "No, this cannot be possible."
"Belle's sick, Scarlett. I have to go. Sick enough that one of her girls told William to come home, something she would never have done if Belle wasn't real bad off. William was kept away from Atlanta for just this reason."
"You have a son," she exclaimed, her voice panicked and shrill.
The pain at having her find out about this detail of his past in such a manner was evident in his eyes for a brief moment before he looked down.
"And here I've been feeling awful about not giving you a child again. How dare you make me feel that way!"
"Wait a minute, Scarlett. I never said I wanted you to get with child again. I mean, sure I'd love another child, and I realize that we have been trying for one since I came back but that was only because we both wanted it."
Tears formed in her eyes and Rhett knew she was struggling to keep them from falling, but he saw them and his heart constricted tight in his chest.
"He's almost a man, Rhett. How could you possibly have kept him hidden from me for all of these years? Why you've had him since you met me."
"Yes," he admitted. "Yes, I have. He's sixteen. Scarlett, this isn't the time or the place to talk about this. I have to go see Belle."
"You have to what," she shouted again her voice shrill.
"Scarlett, she's sick enough that someone sent for him to come home and see her."
"You are not going to that woman's bedside, Rhett. You are not."
"Then come with me. If you don't trust me, come with me."
"I could never do that, Rhett, and you know it."
"Why not? You've nursing experience," he reasoned.
"You expect too much from me if you think I'd do that." She stood, using the sofa's arm for support until she was fully upright. "And you," she said turning to William. "You can get out of my house. You go tell your mother that I hope she rots in hell."
"Scarlett," Rhett shouted. He stood and placed his hands on her arms, turning her roughly to face him.
"I'll go now, Rhett," William said timidly. "But Mrs. Butler, Ma'am, my mother didn't send me here, I came because I fear she's dying and I just wanted Rhett to know. That's all. I didn't mean to cause any problems."
"Between you and your mother I have more problems than I know what to do with," she said but stopped from saying anything more when Rhett roughly tugged on her arms. "You stop manhandling me, Rhett Butler. Get your hands off of me. This is my house, you're my husband, and I'm not going to have that woman and whatever offspring of yours she bore come in here and ruin everything."
William turned to leave, Rhett unable to help but notice the pained look on William's face. This was the exact reason he had been kept out of Atlanta. "Scarlett," Rhett said through gritted teeth. "How dare you speak about Belle like that in front of him! Whether he's my child or not is irrelevant. You wouldn't stand idly by while someone insulted you or Melanie like that in front of someone."
"She's not someone, Rhett, she's a whore. She's your mistress. She's the woman whose bed you went to after you saw me all of those years. She's the woman whose house you were at when I struggled to bring Beau into this world. She prospered and continued to live high on the hog while I suffered because you helped her but you didn't help me. Not once did you help me."
Rhett took her into his arms, realizing she was on the verge of being hysterical. He took it as a good sign that she did not pull away from him and so he continued to hold her, to offer her whatever comfort he could. "Come now, Scarlett, I was there for you as best as I could be. I did, too, do things for you. I brought you gifts, I got you the mule and buggy that got all of you to Tara after Beau was born, I even saved Ashley's life."
"That wasn't for me."
"No, no it wasn't, but you would never have forgiven me if I had let him die and could have prevented it somehow."
"I know, Scarlett. This is a lot to work through. But I have to go see Belle. I meant it; if you don't trust me and want to accompany me there I won't stop you. But I haven't been with her in a very very long time. I've had no reason to be with her in the past year, you've been everything to me she could have ever been and more. You're my wife, she's not nor would she have ever stood a chance of being that."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course I do. I would never have married her, Scarlett. I don't love Belle, and you know that."
"Yes, I do. I know that what you feel for her is what Ashley felt for me, nothing but an animalistic lust."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with animalistic lust, Scarlett."
"Stop it, Rhett. That's not what I meant, and you can't steer this conversation to our intimate life."
He placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head back so he could look into her beautiful emerald green eyes. "Let me go, Scarlett. Wait up for me if you want to, but I have to do this. Would I stop you from visiting Ashley if he were possibly dying?"
"No, I suppose you wouldn't."
"Belle's the closest thing I've had to a reliable friend, besides you she's been the one constant in my life for a number of years. If she needs me, I need to go to her. And William would not have risked coming here, would not have risked exposing himself if she didn't need me."
"I don't want you spending the night there, Rhett."
"If I feel it's necessary, can I send for you to join me?"
"What," she asked frowning, her eyebrows arching.
"Scarlett, if she's dying I'm not going to leave her because you've instilled a curfew on me."
"Well, no, I suppose that wouldn't be fair but that doesn't mean I like it at all. I thought I was through sharing you with her."
"You are, Scarlett, you are. I'm going to her as a friend, nothing more. Surely you know that."
"I suppose I do, but it makes me wonder what other things you've hidden from me. What other surprises are waiting to come out of lurkdom from the shadows of your past."
"And that's what they are, Scarlett, parts of my past. Did you even pay attention to what he called me? He called me Rhett not Father or Dad."
"No, I hadn't noticed."
"We'll talk about it when I get back, Scarlett. You're not going to pack my bags and throw them out or pack your bags and leave me while I'm gone are you?"
She shook her head ever so slightly in response to his questions.
"Very well, I hold you to your word, Scarlett. We've come so far this past year, I'm not going to let this ruin what we have obtained." He drew away from her, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Have some tea and get some rest, I'll be back or I'll send for you."
"Very well, Rhett." And without another word, she watched as he left the room. She heard the front door close a few seconds later and knew that he was gone; he had left their home to go to Belle because she needed him. What if it was some sort of trick? What if it was some sick and demented way for Belle to make an attempt at unraveling what they had spent the last year binding so tightly, their love, their marriage and their family unit?
Despite the heat of the late July night, Scarlett shivered, rubbing her arms in an attempt to warm herself. It was not a physical chill that possessed her; it was cold brought on by fear - a fear of the unknown. She was tempted to skip the tea altogether and instead imbibe in some brandy, but she had over the past year lessened her reliance on the substance to where she no longer drank it other than with Rhett as an after dinner treat.
Her hand drifted almost in an affectionate caress over the crystal decanter's stopper. She felt the coolness of the delicately cut glass beneath the palm of her hand and for a moment almost gave into it, it was calling to her. The amber liquid that burned going down at first but once the burning sensation subsided left her feeling numb, which was what she wanted. Was it not?
To feel numb, to feel nothing, to escape from the reality that now included Rhett having a son ironically the very same day she had presented Rhett with the gift of giving her two children his name? She pulled the stopper from the bottle slowly and brought it to her nose, the smell of the brandy was invigorating. But then after a moment she felt revulsion. What was she doing? No, she was stronger than this, she would not become that person again, weak and dependent on an intangible substance to make her think she was stronger. "No," she shouted and ran from the room.
She fled through the kitchen and out the servants' entryway in a flurry to the stables where she hitched up her horse quickly and mounted it, sidesaddle be damned. She needed to feel the wind through her hair, to smell the air, to feel the warmth of the day against her skin, to see the evening sky's stars and to wrap all these very real and very rewarding sensations around her to escape the temptation that was that amber substance located in the parlor's decanter.
The sound of the horse's hooves beating against the ground cast everything from her mind but the freedom the animal represented. She did not need liquor. All she needed was this, the outdoors and a good horse to ride until her mind was clear and the strong desire to imbibe had lessened into a weak murmur. She thought she had put this want to rest long ago but obviously she had not. It was frightening yet humbling and invigorating at the same time.
Frightening because it would have been so easy to pour the drink and think on it later. Humbling because she was not above everyone else, she had problems like everyone and was tempted to take the easy way at solving a problem or at least numbing herself to it. Invigorating because she had not poured that drink, she had smelled the aroma and had stayed strong. Even with her emotions jumbled as they were she had stayed strong.
Scarlett had no idea how long she had been riding. In the back of her mind she was aware of the fact that she had been gone for quite some time and had not announced to anyone that she was leaving. She had stopped to let the horse rest, surprised to find that she had stopped in front of the cemetery.
"Melanie. Bonnie," she murmured, feeling tears form in her eyes. Was it coincidence that she had ended up here in a moment of trouble, a moment of weakness? She doubted it was and found herself walking toward her daughter's final resting spot. Her eyes rested on Charles' headstone as well as Frank's and a wave of guilt washed through her.
Charles should have married Honey and Frank should have married Suellen. She knew that now even though she would not have done anything differently if the same situations were presented to her. She did not like to think of herself as an opportunist, but she knew she did not fall too far from the tree by that name.
She knelt on the ground, running her hand along the area Bonnie was laid to rest. The flowers Rhett had placed on the grave just two days ago were already starting to wilt and whither away. They took turns laying flowers on her grave, sometimes they went together but every week there was something on her grave without fail.
Rhett and Scarlett had had come so far in the past year. They had talked openly about Bonnie, their parents, Ashley, and many other things. Scarlett had realized that Rhett was an even better friend once she realized she loved him. She had always known he could be a confidante, she had always been able to tell him things she could never have told anyone else. The one topic they had both strayed away from, though, was Belle. She was a subject Scarlett preferred not to think about and obviously Rhett took his cue from Scarlett and did not talk about her.
Scarlett knew next to nothing about the woman except that Belle Watling had seemed to take great pleasure in knowing Scarlett O'Hara, the belle of three counties had not been able to hang on to Rhett. Scarlett knew that Belle contributed to the medical facilities during the War and helped Ashley, Dr. Meade and the other men who had made it out of Shantytown alive the night Frank was killed. Scarlett never quite understood why Belle did it, Rhett had not accompanied the men.
She had not wanted any of her children, she could not claim to have done right by either Wade or Ella at least up until recently. But they at least knew their mother was there and would do whatever it took to see that they were fed. She had loved Bonnie in a way that was foreign to Scarlett, but it had not been enough to prevent tragedy from continuing to taint her life. The past year had been going so well, too well, Scarlett should have known something would happen to throw everything off balance once again. At least no one had to die, always in the past things seemed to start or end with someone dying. Of course, Rhett's son indicated that Belle might be dying, so once again death was part of the equation.
"I'm sick of death," she said, her tears coating the coarse, dry grass of Bonnie's grave. The soldiers she saw lying sick just waiting for death's angel to visit them still haunted her sometimes. She did not know how many times she had dreamt of being surrounded by a mass of soldiers with eyes showing signs they were already dead whispering her name, pleading with her to try and save them. It was either that or the dream she had for years of her searching in the fog for something or someone that was never revealed to her. Though that particular dream had lessened in frequency so much so that she could not even recall the last time she had had it.
Scarlett thought that upon Belle's dying she might actually be free of her, but even if Belle was on her deathbed she would have succeeded one last time in coming between Rhett and Scarlett. The woman would die knowing that Rhett had left Scarlett to go to her. Maybe it was a ploy, an attempt by Belle to get Rhett alone with her.
"I won't let her do it," she said determined. It had been years since Scarlett had done any serious nursing, beyond taking care of those at Tara who had injured themselves while picking cotton or other minor things that she could tend to without bothering Doctor Fontaine. "We might just send the poor woman to an early grave from shock," she said with a giggle to Bonnie.
She stood from Bonnie's gravesite and glanced at the sky as she brushed some fallen wisps of hair at her forehead out of the way with the back of her hand. It was not too late, perhaps she had not been gone for as long as she thought. It had been so long since she had let her anger and temper get the best of her. Her mother would disapprove of the vindictive thoughts Scarlett was having. Her father, on the other hand, would more than likely tell Scarlett to stand up for what she believed in. Her father had been right on about Scarlett needing a man who thought like she did, he was more than likely right about more things than Scarlett had really thought to give him credit for before now. She did acknowledge she was far more like Gerald O'Hara than she was Ellen Robillard.
"Let's just go find out what your daddy is doing," she said with a wide smile, proud of herself for thinking things through and not turning to her brandy as she had in the past.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com